School support staff unions are "sounding out" members over possible industrial action after their members were given a pay freeze.
Education leaders at Unison, which represents 200,000 teaching assistants, dinner ladies, caretakers and other non-teaching staff, said workers are furious at the announcement, and are demanding the chance to negotiate a better deal.
The last time school support staff walked out over pay, in July 2008, there was chaos across England and Wales as hundreds of secondaries and several thousand primaries faced closure or disruption.
In the past 10 years, the number of support staff has boomed in schools, with 500,000 people now thought to be working in roles such as teaching assistant, librarian and science technician.
Unions had been calling for a 2.5 per cent rise this year to keep apace with inflation, which was 2.9 per cent in December.
Christina McAnea, national secretary for education at the union, claimed some of the lowest paid workers were being treated like "political footballs" by Tory-dominated councils reluctant to push up council tax before the elections.
She also warned the local government pay freeze, for this year and 2011, will heighten pay inequalities in the classroom, as teachers have been awarded a 2.3 per cent rise.
Mrs McAnea said: "It's going to highlight that we have got one group of staff covered by a formal pay review body and another at the whim of local government employers. We understand that the country is going through a recession, but why are low paid public sector workers being made to pay for bankers who were profligate with taxpayers' money?"
She pointed out that teaching assistants had been highly praised in this week's Ofsted report on workforce reform.
Brian Strutton, national secretary at the GMB union, which also represents support staff, said it had been "shocked" that no pay offer had been made and the union had "not ruled out" strike action.
The key unions, Unison, GMB and Unite, are expected to decide on a course of action when they meet next week, he added. But Local Government Employers (LGE) has insisted there is simply not enough money to pay for a rise.
Phil White, LGE's head of pay negotiations, said: "The political make-up of the employers is not important, this is about finance and not politics. Councils have been squeezed largely by the impact of the recession."
He said the employers had not offered to negotiate a deal because to do so would imply there was money available.
"To negotiate would be leading them down the garden path," he said, adding that a very small increase in pay would require a big increase in council tax to pay for it. "It's misleading to say that raising council tax could pay for it."
The pay row comes just months before the new School Support Staff Negotiating Body is due to submit its recommendations for a formal pay structure for teaching assistants and other support staff to the Schools Secretary.
Currently, support staff do not have the reassurance of national pay scales provided to teachers and pay is thought to vary wildly across the country and across schools.
The new structure, which could be accepted or rejected by the Government, will split support staff jobs into different pay categories.
'THE JOB IS UNTENABLE'
Sue Wade MBE, 66, has been a teaching assistant (TA) at Hethersett High School in Norfolk since 1993 and now works as a higher level TA in the science department.
She is contracted for 30 hours over a five-day week, but works five hours on top of that unpaid, as well as lunch times, and attends parents evenings in her own time.
"The freeze has come on top of what is already low pay," she says. "I don't earn #163;10 an hour before tax and I'm near the top of the scale. It's untenable for anybody to do other than as a second income. I receive a state pension and my husband a professional pension so that's what makes it possible."
Mrs Wade feels that TAs' good will is exploited. "Schools couldn't run without us now," she says.